I've been on a berry rampage. Since August 1, I have foraged for nine—count 'em, nine —varieties of wild berries within 150 miles of my house. That surprised even me; I literally stumbled upon several of the varieties, some of which I'd never even seen before.
Foraging led to cooking, of course, and I've posted roughly a dozen new berry-related recipes in the past month, and have done all sorts of bizarre experiments with some of the weirder fruit I've found; some of you might have read about my manzanita cider.
When I was done, I realized that to write one post on all I've learned would be madness—it'd take something like 5,000 words, which few of you have time to read. (Yeah, I know, I can be long-winded. Sue me.) So I've broken my berry extravaganza into three pieces: Berries of California's Central Valley, where I live; berries of the High Sierra; and berries of the Coastal Range.
Don't live in California? Rest assured you can still read on—almost all of these berries also live in other Western states, and most have variants in the East, like the blackberries and elderberries I'm writing about today.
Are there other wild berries in the Central Valley? You bet. But with one exception, elderberries and blackberries are the most common, the tastiest, and the easiest to find in quantity; the exception is the wild grape, and I'll get to that one in September.
Might as well start with the one fruit pretty much every American can spot from a distance, the humble blackberry.
Blackberries grow everywhere here. They are invasive, full of thorns, and are oh-so-tasty if you can beat the birds to them. So far as I know, blackberries can be found in every state, and they all come ripe between June and September, depending on where you are. The various species are all interchangeable in recipes.
Blackberries grow everywhere here. They are invasive, full of thorns, and are oh-so-tasty if you can beat the birds to them.
The plants are easy to recognize: blackberries grow as briar patches made up of thorny canes. They have white flowers in spring, and the berries ripen from green to red to black. And, um, ahem, know that the blackberry is not a raspberry, which has red fruit. I have a vivid memory of my sister telling me to try that "red blackberry" once when I was a kid. It was so sour I almost cried. I am still plotting revenge on her for that one, all these years later ...
A ripe blackberry pulls off the bush easily. They are very soft, however, so collect them in shallow, broad baskets so you don't pile them too high. Doing so will smush the berries. You will undoubtedly pick lots of slightly less ripe berries, and this is a good thing—it balances the acid and sugar when you are making things with them.
Blackberries have excellent amounts of sugar and acid, but low tannins, which matters only if you are making wine. Most people store whole berries by freezing them on sheet pans in one layer to prevent sticking, then putting the frozen berries in a sealable bag. I cook them down and make a blackberry syrup instead.
What do you do with blackberry syrup? Well, it's pretty awesome on pancakes or vanilla ice cream; I served some over an ice cream flavored with yerba buena the other day. (Yerba buena is a kind of mint that grows all over Southern California.)
Another obvious one is blackberry liqueur. How easy is this? Wash blackberries, fill a quart Mason jar two-thirds full, and fill to the rim with 100-proof vodka. Let this steep in the pantry for anywhere from a month to a year, strain, and sweeten to taste. Easy-peasy.
Getting a little sportier, I decided to make a blackberry panna cotta. Most blackberry panna cotta recipes are really vanilla panna cotta with a blackberry compote; I did something like this earlier this year with a lemon verbena panna cotta and a mulberry compote. This time I wanted the blackberries in the cream.